Boris Johnson’s resignation honours confirm that he is a one-man walking argument for House of Lords reform. Having already ennobled various donors and acolytes he has handed titles – and a lifelong presence in the legislature – to even more of his closest supporters. Following in the ermine-clad footsteps of controversial Johnson nominees such as Evgeny Lebedev and Peter Cruddas are a host of his most loyal MPs and aides, including one reportedly still in her twenties.
The appointments are a crass form of patronage, offering a lifelong chance to vote on laws (and draw an income) in return for having shored up Johnson’s shaky premiership. They are hardly surprising moves from the former prime minister, who was always one to punish his rivals and shower power on his lieutenants, nor is it entirely unusual for the Lords appointment system. From David Lloyd George selling peerages, to the Lavender List of Harold Wilson and the Cash-for-Honours Scandal in the 2000s, the upper chamber has never been untainted. The question is whether it will be undone in the near future.
There are reasonable arguments for maintaining an appointed House of Lords. More than a century after having its wings clipped by the Parliament Act of 1911, it functions well as a reviewing chamber with only limited power to block legislation. It can be a brake on a government with a Commons majority without the deadlock that occurs in some bicameral legislatures. Equally, the appointments and cross-bench system allow the recruitment of experts who might otherwise eschew party politics and fighting elections. This allows the House to draw on academics, campaigners or retired soldiers and civil servants in a way that it is important, but hard to replicate through an electoral system.
Despite this, in many ways the Lords is a mess, the result of multiple rounds of “interim” reform that never resolved into a final answer. Many find an unelected legislature uneasy altogether. The disquiet is heightened by the strange juxtaposition of Anglican bishops, hereditary peers who take their place through a convoluted internal election, and the life peers who come together in the largest upper house in the world.
The latter category was designed to add more legitimacy and expertise to the Chamber, but this is dependent on the good sense of politicians appointing them. It is another part of our constitution that requires people to do the right thing because it is the right thing – something that is poorly designed for the likes of Boris Johnson.
Those that advocate tearing the whole thing down to start afresh, however, should proceed with caution. Each attempt to modify the Lords seems to founder on the same point: a lack of certainty on what it ought to do. For all its shortcomings, the upper chamber carries out its role well. Debates are generally thoughtful and incisive (often more so than the Commons). Select committees too are usually diligent and effective. The Lords produces thoughtful amendments and uses its blocking power very rarely, usually on controversial legislation such as Tony Blair’s attempts to increase detention without charge for terror suspects.
Without a clear idea of what a reformed House of Lords should do, it is hard to envisage how it ought to be different. A fully elected chamber might challenge the primacy of the Commons and encourage far more parliamentary logjam, while still offering a sinecure for washed-up MPs and cronies. Equally, an under-powered upper house risks simply becoming a talking shop.
Poorly thought out and highly partisan appointments to the House of Lords cheapen our politics and worsen our legislature. But so too would an ill-conceived reform of the Upper House. The current system might not be as clean or as rational as we would like, but it does a job. To replace it well, we need to define what it should do differently. We know we do not want an upper chamber populated by Johnson’s friends, but any change needs more purpose than that.